Do Americans Really Need To Be More Fucked Up?

Katie Roiphe speculates that Americans love Mad Men so much because we've forgotten how to live boozy, sexy, "messy lives." But whose life is she talking about?

In yesterday's Times, Roiphe wrote,

The phenomenal success of the show relies at least in part on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior to our relatively staid and enlightened times. As a culture we have moved in the direction of the gym, of the enriching, wholesome pursuit, of the embrace of responsibility, and the furthering of goals, and away from lounging around in the middle of the afternoon with a drink.

Roiphe also alleges that today's bored marrieds "tend to go to couples therapy and 'work' on their relationships" rather than resorting to the Draper-approved palliatives of alcohol and adultery. But, she asks, "are we happier than Don and Betty Draper, or are we just doing yoga or Pilates or 'working' on our relationships?" If you're a regular reader of the Times style section, you could be forgiven for thinking that Americans these days really do divide their time between the yoga studio and the marriage therapist's couch. But of course, there's a big swath of America that has neither money for therapy nor time for yoga, and it's hard to say whether they'd recognize themselves in either Mad Men or Roiphe's Pilates-washed view of modern life. When she talks about today's staid cocktail parties ("most people go home with the person they are supposed to go home with") and the wild bacchanals of yesteryear (those held "in the literary circles orbiting the Paris Review"), she's talking about events with pretty select guest lists, whose mores may not say all that much about how "we" as a society live.

Maybe Roiphe's real point is that the chattering classes have grown more censorious. In this she wouldn't be alone — Jessica Grose famously called millennials "Generation Scold" for their supposedly judgmental attitude toward promiscuity, and a purported new celibacy among young people with writing gigs is gaining attention, if not, perhaps, actual popularity. And it's probably true that the kind of drinking featured on Mad Men would raise more than a few eyebrows today, especially in a culture where the addiction memoir has become so prevalent. In TV and movies set in the present, an extra glass of wine so often leads a character straight to rehab that I was surprised when Annette Bening's Nic in The Kids Are All Right didn't end up doing the twelve steps.

But even with all this finger-wagging (and, in many cases, meta-finger-wagging), plenty of people still manage to go home — or to Argentina — with people they're not supposed to go home with. People still drink, at Paris Review parties and elsewhere. If there has been a cultural shift, it's not in what people actually do, but in what people at the top talk about doing — writes Roiphe, "try telling a group of young parents in a Draper-like milieu that you have decided to give your baby non-organic milk instead of paying $4 for organic, and see what sort of unbridled shock you can elicit." I'd certainly rather watch the literati drink and fuck than argue about milk, but I'd also like to think there are other options for intellectuals than an obsessive focus on one another's personal lives. Roiphe also says, "We are so busy channeling our energies into doing what is good for us, for our children, into responsible and improving endeavors, that we may have forgotten somewhere along the way, somewhere in the harried trip back from Suzuki violin or Whole Foods, to seize the day." But maybe we — whoever "we" are — have also forgotten to look outward.

The Allure Of Messy Lives [NYT]